Mississippi sets tighter restrictions on absentee ballots

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi will set tighter restrictions on who can gather other people's absentee ballots, under a bill that Gov. Tate Reeves signed Wednesday.

The Republican governor said the law, which takes effect July 1, will ban political operatives from collecting and handling large numbers of absentee ballots. Reeves described the practice as “ballot harvesting,” a pejorative term for dropping off completed ballots for other people.

“This process is an open invitation for fraud and abuse, and can occur without the voter ever even knowing,” Reeves said in a video statement.

Opponents said the new restrictions could hurt candidates, campaign workers, nursing home employees or others who make good-faith efforts to help people obtain and mail absentee ballots.

“This bill will make all of you criminals if you go and assist anybody with getting an absentee ballot. And that's wrong," Democratic Rep. Willie Bailey of Greenville told fellow House members during a March 7 debate. “It is no good. It is a part of a system going around the country, suppressing people's right to vote in a democratic society.”

Republican-led states have tightened rules on voting by mail since the 2020 presidential election, in part because of the false narrative of widespread fraud in that race.

Unlike some states that allow widespread use of voting by mail, Mississippi already restricts the reasons people may vote by absentee ballot. The absentee ballots are available — by mail or for early, in-person voting — to Mississippi voters who are 65 or older; any voter who has a temporary or permanent physical disability, or any voter who is that person's caretaker; or any voter who will be away from their home county on election day, including college students.

Mississippi's new law takes effect a few weeks before the state's Aug. 8 party primaries for statewide, regional, legislative and county elections.

The law sets a short list of people who can “collect and transmit” a ballot that was mailed to another person. That list includes employees of the U.S. Postal Service or other mail carriers, plus any “family member, household member or caregiver of the person to whom the ballot was mailed.”

Any violation of the law will be punishable by up to a year in a county jail, a $3,000 fine or both.

The House passed the bill 73-44 on March 7, with most of the support coming from Republicans and most of the opposition from Democrats. The Senate passed the final version 33-13 on March 14, with a similar partisan divide.